While the Springboks are taking nothing for granted, they have acknowledged that the All Blacks will be poorer for the injury-enforced absence of captain Richie McCaw, reports JON CARDINELLI in Auckland.
The Boks are coming off a fantastic win in Brisbane in which they physically dominated their opponents. It was in this contest where they were particularly good at the breakdown, with the loose trio of Francois Louw, Willem Alberts, and Duane Vermeulen combining brilliantly to stifle the Wallabies attack.
A contest against the All Blacks, however, has always been considered the ultimate yardstick of a team's ability. At the beginning of the Test season, forwards coach Johann van Graan told this website that the Boks regard the All Blacks as the best exponents of breakdown play in world rugby. At that stage of the season (having played just one Test against Italy), the Boks still had a lot of ground to make up before the Castle Rugby Championship.
Eight Tests later, and the Boks have certainly closed the gap significantly. Their famous win at Suncorp Stadium was down to their breakdown performance, which in itself stands them in good stead ahead of a brutal forwards-oriented clash with the All Blacks.
And the fact that McCaw won't feature in the scrap at Eden Park is another positive for the Boks.
Not only has McCaw been the leading openside flank in world rugby for the better part of a decade, but also one of the game's most successful leaders. As it stands, McCaw has won 104 of his 118 Tests with the All Blacks.
'Richie is one of the best to have played the game,' Meyer said. 'It's not easy to replace a player like that. I can tell you now what a big loss it would be if Jean [de Villiers, the Bok skipper] was unavailable.
'They still have some great leaders in Kieran Read, but you are always going to miss a player and a leader like Richie.'
While Read will take the leadership reins, Sam Cane has been tipped to wear the No 7 jersey. A lot has been said and written about this young man, and yet Cane has been used only sparingly by the All Blacks and Chiefs in the past two seasons. If he does start against the Boks, he will have a lot to prove.
Blindside flanker Steven Luatua played against Argentina last week, but will be replaced by Liam Messam, a more robust and experienced player. The Boks are expecting a massive physical onslaught, and so, clearly, are the All Blacks.
'The breakdown is going to be war this Saturday,' confirmed Meyer. 'They won't have Richie, but New Zealand rugby has always been renowned for its breakdown skills, and especially for its openside flankers. We're expecting a physical as well as a tactical battle.'
Saturday's Test at Eden Park is likely to be played in contrasting conditions to that of last week's game at Suncorp Stadium. Rain is forecast for the weekend, and the teams will need to adjust accordingly.
The breakdown battle will determine the outcome of the contest, but as Meyer was quick to point out, the new scrum laws have served to underline the importance of this set-piece.
The Bok scrum was excellent in Brisbane, and the pack will feel confident that they can at least match the All Blacks after the New Zealanders' wobbly effort against Argentina.
'The scrum has changed under the new laws, it's more of a contest,' said Meyer. 'Whereas before you used to play for the penalty or the free kick, now you are able to construct an attack from this set-piece. I think this trend will become more prominent as the teams grow more accustomed to the new laws.'
Set-piece dominance and breakdown supremacy will go a long way to winning this clash, but Meyer feels that the tactical kicking will also be influential. It's yet another facet in which the All Blacks are world leaders, and thus another opportunity for the ambitious Boks to see how they measure up.
'There are no weaknesses in this All Black side,' said Meyer. 'They're very good tactically. They've improved in areas like the lineout over the past few years, and have added a strong kicking game. Dan Carter has been unbelievable for them in that respect.
'We've also proved that we can adapt. We've scored some great tries this season, and will also be able to play in the wet. It may suit them more, but I'm confident that we will adjust.'
Photo: Michael Bradley/AFP Photo
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